Why Your Students Don’t Remember What You Teach

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Why Your Students Don’t Remember What You Teach: The Overwhelming Power Of ‘Place’ In Learning

by Terry Heick

A decent question: Why don’t your students remember what you’ve taught?

A better question: Why don’t they understand what you’ve taught?

A better question still: Why don’t students understand and use what they’ve been taught to create a better world?

The answer may have something to do with a kind of cultural schema. Place. The value of ‘place’ in learning lies in its function as context: People seek to know things in order, usually, to do things, and these things are done–without exception–in a ‘place’.

What is the difference between a location and a place? One distinction is that of fullness. A location is geographic and singular; a place is artistic and whole. Location would be the address you were married, or had your first kiss. The ‘place’ would be how that place sits in your memory.

If we assume that education is, in part, about “career readiness,” then one overarching goal of learning might be for each learner to understand not just how to “get a job,” or even how to work, but rather how to work well, and how to decide what their work might be.

A person’s work, as opposed to a job, is about their ability to know what can and should be done, and to bring their experience and affection to bear on that work to do it, and do it well. Parenting, for example, isn’t a job, but a matter of work. Teaching is work, too. The underlying thought process behind the decision to be a teacher might go like this:

1. It is necessary for people to know things, and how to do things related to what they know.

2. Teaching is one important way to support this.

3. Teaching, then, is work worth doing.

4. I am going to decide how to teach, and then over the years learn to teach well.

But what it means to do something well depends on context. Who is being taught? Where have they been? Where are they going? What do they need to know as a result? How can I help them come to know this content or these skill? To further clarify the necessary specificity, the pronouns have to be singular, not plural. Not “What do they need to know?”, but rather “What does this child, in this place, need to know?” This is the foundation of personalized learning.

How Learning Changes Us 

In terms of function, learning might look like this:

1. Incrementally acquire new data

2. Synthesize that with what you already know

3. Experiment with that new mix by application

Find something, combine it with what you already know, and try to use it to see if it works the way you expected. Readjust perception, and repeat endlessly.

This is how to divide. How does that compare to multiplication? Where is this useful? How is this similar and dissimilar to what I already know? Let’s give division a try by solving these three problems.

This is the definition of literary symbolism. It is similar to a metaphor and related to an allegory; symbolism itself isn’t limited to literature, but extends to everything from flags to wedding rings to hip-hop wordplay. Let me see if I can identify the symbols in this song, and figure out how the songwriter is using them for some kind of effect. 

Of course, this is not limited to academic knowledge. The same applies to learning ethics, problem-solving, decision-making, and so on. It’s easy to see, then, how learning changes beliefs. And it’s all unique to each learner. When you learn to play the violin, or learn how special effects are used to create illusions in movies–that knowledge is internalized inevitably through your own native–and quite personal–schema. That is, you interpret ideas through the ideas you’ve already had, and each idea impacts the rest.

In terms of sequence, the process of learning might go something like this:

1. Awareness leads to thoughts.

2. Thoughts both reflect and create knowledge.

3. Knowledge lead to emotions.

4. Emotions lead to behavior.

Learning, therefore, results in both personal and social change through self-knowledge and behavioral change. That is, learning changes how you think, feel, and behave or it isn’t learning at all, but rather more of a kind of exposure that incidentally yields to illusory gains on assessment forms too crude to know what real understanding looks like. Roughly and abstractly put, that’s learning.

Personal change is process; social change is a process. Both are effects of understanding.

And it all happens in a place.

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A Post-Local Society

Recently as a part of program by Vibe Israel, I visited the earth and people and ideas of scattered places around Israel to get a sense of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and where they’re doing it. Each of these elements depends entirely on the next. One can’t know what they’re doing if they don’t know where they’re doing it; you can’t know why something is being done unless you know where it is happening. And so on.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to share–as accurate as I can capture it–the ideas suggested by the places, from schools and communities to accelerators and education start-ups that each will represent a person’s vision to fill an authentic need in an authentic place. (And when that wasn’t the process–when it wasn’t a real person from a real place trying to solve a real problem in a real place–it is usually easy to see.)

It is tempting–and strangely romantic–to think of this newly connected society to be, in fact, post-local. That places digital as authentic as those physical. Even if we were to accept this as true, there is nothing to compare with the memory of a physical place. A home, a yard, a park, a garden, a church, and any other physical location have embedded within them an impossibly complex history–one that is parallel to local cultural memory.

And these places can’t begin to have their unique stories told and nuance curated and requirements met without the work of affectionate human beings doing good work within them. Without thoughtful people, these places become spaces to be used or “developed” as profit or commercial see fit.

A locally-based, making curriculum is one strategy in response that makes some sense. Students might make solutions to solve problems, or express frustrations, or communicate affection. But these problems and frustrations and affections are situated in a place. That student in that community with that history meet that challenge.

So reconsider our original line of questioning:

A decent question: Why don’t your students remember what you’ve taught?

A better question: Why don’t they understand what you’ve taught?

A better question still: Why don’t students understand and use what they’ve been taught to create a better world?

Place is human context. Learning is about supporting people in their native places. Place, then, is everything that’s not the person.

Production apart from a place is industry. Production within a place is craft. Among other factors, this may be why your students don’t remember what you’ve been teaching them.

The Overwhelming Power Of ‘Place’ In Learning; image attribution flickr user angelrivalsphotographics

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